Islam Makhachev has not had much time to bask in the glory of becoming UFC lightweight champion, but knows his new-found status comes with caveats.
“Mentally, it’s not just you win the belt and you’re champion,” Makhachev tells The National, less than four months from his crowning night in Abu Dhabi and little more than a week before his first title defence, the much-hyped contest against pound-for-pound supremo Alexander Volkanovski.
“After the title fight everything is beginning. Now everybody looks at you, everybody wants to beat you. That’s why you have to be ready. You have to be in the best shape and train harder."
There are clear positives, also.
“Now all fighters give me some respect," Makhachev says. "I trained from when I was young, training so hard for that moment; I’m not just spending five, six, 10 years for it. I spent all my life for that moment, for the belt.
“The best thing now is I don’t have to find an opponent. They find me. I don’t have to think about looking for some opponent, ask for the opponent, ask for the fight. All my career every fighter tried to avoid me. But, right now, I forget about this.”
Certainly, last October was a night to remember. Headlining UFC 280 in Abu Dhabi, Makhachev defeated the long-unbeaten Charles Oliveira by second-round submission, dominating the former lightweight champion to halt his 11-fight win streak and realise a dream of capturing UFC gold.
“That moment, I’ve watched many times,” Makhachev says. “But the whole fight? Maybe a couple of times. The emotion, the moment, I think it never happens again.
“Because the emotion when Charles tapped, this moment I don’t think can come again. [Watching it back] always makes me happy.”
Apparently more confident, as well. The victory reinforced what many had been saying for some time - childhood friend, teammate and retired former champion Khabib Nurmagomedov included.
That Makhachev, now 23-1 as a professional, was destined to be champion.
“Inside my mind I feel joy," Makhachev says. “Because what you’re doing all your life, how you’re training, how you eat, how you sleep, you understand that everything you’re doing is right, because you’re a champion right now.”
Yet there hasn’t been much time to truly savour it. No sooner had Makhachev been anointed the UFC’s best lightweight, he was joined in the Etihad Arena octagon by featherweight champion Volkanovski.
Ranked the sport’s pound-for-pound No 1 male athlete, the Australian agreed to step up to lightweight to take on the newly minted Makhachev, on the UFC's big return to Australia, at UFC 284 in Perth on February 12.
Volkanovski, 34, is attempting to become only the fifth UFC fighter to hold belts in different weights at the same time. Makhachev, three years his junior, is looking to usurp his rival at the pinnacle of the sport.
“This is a big challenge, and something big for me, because we’re not just fighting for the belt, we’re fighting for the rankings, who’s going to be pound-for-pound No 1,” says Makhachev, sat currently second on that list. “That’s why it’s new motivation for me, and a new goal.
“This is legacy, to be pound-for-pound. I don’t know what it’s going to feel like because it’s something new, for sure. People are not just going to call me champion; they’re going to say pound-for-pound No 1 fighter in the world.
“I don’t know too much now [what it will mean to me], but we’ll see.”
Beaten once as a pro – back in October 2015 - and riding an 11-fight win streak, Makhachev understands the challenge that awaits next week.
Volkanovski has won his last 22 bouts, 12 of which in the UFC, with the single blemish on his 26-fight pro CV coming almost a decade ago, some time before he signed with the organisation.
“He’s good in striking when he closes the distance,” says Makhachev, speaking from his base Down Under. “He’s so fast, so sharp. So, I have to be ready for that moment.
“I’m not sure I’ve fought someone before like the pound-for-pound best fighter – that’s why it’s going to be something new for me. But it doesn’t matter. Believe me, I’m ready."
Born in Wollongong, New South Wales, Volkanovski will no doubt enjoy a partisan support at the RAC Arena in Perth. It will represent a significant change for Makhachev, who won last time out in Abu Dhabi practically as a home favourite.
“I’m going to miss that,” he says. “But it’s OK. All my life I fight in the US or somewhere where the people all support my opponent. That’s why it’s nothing new for me.”
Not that he feels, either, that it makes Volkanovski more dangerous.
“No, brother,” Makhachev says. “When the cage is closed, brother, nothing. Not the people, not the energy. Nothing. It’s you and your opponent.”
Makhachev, though, will not even have Nurmagomedov by his side this time - in person at least. The former lightweight champion, who retired undefeated following his title defence against Justin Gaethje in Abu Dhabi in October 2020, has made a seamless transition to coaching, cornering Makhachev in his past five fights.
However, Nurmagomedov has decided for the moment to step away from MMA entirely, reportedly to spend more time with his family.
“Of course, everybody wants to bring Khabib in your corner,” Makhachev says. “Because this guy knows this game more than everybody. But I have many fights without him, too.
“In the UFC I have fought a couple times without him in the corner. But it’s OK. Mentally it’s nothing.”
Looking relaxed, smiling throughout the interview, Makhachev appears in a strong mental space anyway. He respects Volkanovski for moving up a division, he says, but also that he expected it given his recent run at 145 lbs.
Still, Makhachev warns that Volkanovski will suffer the same fate as Israel Adesanya, the then-middleweight champion who in 2021 chased gold at light heavyweight only to suffer his first pro loss, to Jan Blachowicz.
“[Volkanovski] had to step to the other weight class because he beat all his opponents in his division,” Makhachev says. “I don’t know someone who can beat him right now this year in his division. That’s why he just tries like his teammate Adesanya did when he jumped to another division.
“But this is new jungle for him. This is not his weight. This is other power, other pressure. He doesn’t follow his teammate who made the mistake; he doesn’t learn from the mistake.
"He wants to make the same mistake his teammate did… [like Blachowicz and Adesanya], I’m going to make him lose.”